When the King Came: Stories from the Four Gospels - George Hodges

Heaven and the River

All this time Jesus had been living at Nazareth. It is likely that during these unrecorded years Joseph died, for we hear no more about him. In that case, Jesus, as the eldest son, became the head of the family. Probably he worked at the carpenter's bench, with plane and saw and hammer, and built houses and mended roofs; and the neighbors sent for him to make their doors and tables, and yokes for their oxen. The family grew up about him, from boys and girls to men and women. At least two of the brothers, James and Jude, married: St. Paul tells us that. And there were small nephews and nieces. When our Lord took little children in his arms he knew how to hold them. There was always a baby in the carpenter's house.

The life of the great world went on outside, with its business and its battles, with ships putting out to sea, and soldiers marching, and streets of cities full of eager people. From the hills of Nazareth one looked down on the great roads which ran across the plain: from Egypt, traveled by merchants; from Jerusalem, with pilgrims coming and going; from Damascus, with caravans. To the north of the village lay the highway from the sea, along which Roman legions made their way, with sound of trumpets, the sun glittering on the points of their spears, and all the Nazareth boys perched on high rocks and in the trees to see them. Nazareth was a station on these lines of travel, like a town where railroads meet, and was kept acquainted with the world's news and knew the world's ways. It had a bad name among the villages of the neighborhood; so that our Lord, growing up there, did not live a sheltered life, in which it is more easy to be good than to be bad, but was exposed to continual temptation. He knew all the trials which boys have to meet in public schools and in the streets of cities. He was tempted in all ways just as we are: with this difference, that he never sinned. All his life long, he never did a wrong deed, nor said an evil word, nor even had in his heart a sinful thought. Thus the years went by.

Then, one day, the word came that a new preacher—perhaps a new prophet—was preaching at the ford of the Jordan. Somebody who passed by said so; or perhaps some Nazareth neighbor going to Jerusalem, to the temple or the market there, had gone to hear him, coming back with great accounts of the speaker and the sermon. People talked about it in the street after supper. And our Lord determined to go down and hear the preacher with his own ears.

Probably he went on foot, in a company of the neighbors; but it is likely that he walked alone, at a little distance from the others, thinking his own thoughts—for he had much to think about. Eighteen years had now passed since he sat as a boy in the temple and listened to the teaching of the doctors. During these years he had gradually come to see that he was different from other men. As he grew tall and strong, his mind and his soul grew and became great. He felt his strength of spirit as a strong man feels his strength of body. More and more, as he talked with James and Joses and the others as they worked together, he came to see that his thoughts were not as their thoughts. As he stood alone on the heights of the hills, and looked out across the world and up into the sky, he felt that God was wonderfully near to him, so that he could almost touch him with his hand. He heard, like John, a voice in his soul, calling him away from the carpenter shop, away from Nazareth, to be a leader and a helper of men. As yet, however, all was dim and vague. He increased in stature and in wisdom, but he had not yet come to a full knowledge of himself.

So he arrived at the ford of the Jordan, and there was John the Baptist, in his great cloak, preaching, the crowd pressing close about him.

Sometimes the people asked John questions. The men who came from the rulers asked him, saying, "Who are you? are you Elijah?" "No," he said. "Are you the King of Glory?" "No." "Who are you, then, that we may have an answer to take back to our masters? What do you call yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.' " "Why, then," they said, "do you baptize, if you are neither Elijah nor the King of Glory?" "I baptize," he answered, "with water only, teaching people to prepare their hearts for the coming of the King. The King will come. Yes, he has come already. Here among you in the crowd he stands, even now, unknown." And John stretched out his great arms right and left, as if he were inviting the King to come forth and declare himself. And Jesus stood in silence, listening.

The soldiers were much impressed when John spoke of the life which a true man ought to live, and they said, "What shall we do?" And the publicans said, "What shall we do?" And he told them to be just and honest and contented, and to do good to others.

Sometimes, John the Baptist spoke very sternly, seeing the wickedness of the world, and crying out against it. He especially reproved those who seemed to be better than they really were, telling them that God would judge every man according to his works, and that already it was as when a woodsman marks with his axe where he will strike the tree. And he looked straight at a company of gentlemen on the edge of the crowd, so that everybody knew whom he meant, and the gentlemen turned away in confusion and anger, saying one to another that the speaker was but a crazy man.

Meanwhile, between the answers and the speeches, people were coming up in little groups to be baptized, wading out and plunging with a great splash into the river, or standing while John poured water on their heads. And among them Jesus came that he might be baptized. It is not likely that John the Baptist knew him, having spent so many years in the woods; but the moment he saw him he perceived that he was some great person. There was a light in his eyes which made him unlike anybody else. Indeed, when John looked again, he was almost sure that here at last was the King of Glory. And he said, "I must not baptize you. It is for you to baptize me." But our Lord insisted, and into the water they went, the two together, the herald and the King, with the river beneath and heaven above. And John baptized him.

This ceremony did not mean what baptism means now. Baptism, as we have it, is the service by which persons are admitted to membership in the Christian society, the church. Our Lord's baptism was like what we call ordination. It was the act by which he entered into the ministry.

There he stood, then, between heaven and the river; and a wonderful thing happened. The divine voice, which had spoken so often in the soul of John and in the soul of Jesus, seemed now to them both to be speaking straight from the sky. They two felt that they were surrounded by a blaze of glory, the heaven being open and shining down upon them. The herald saw a form, dim and shadowy, as of a fluttering dove coming down and resting on the King. It was the sign which had been promised him long before in the wilderness, by which he should recognize his Lord and Master. And the voice said, "Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."